What’s the happy hour origins?
You would think it’s American right? Well, like most things American, its origin is not American but stems from some of our friends from across the seas. Namely, the Parisians and in the case, the Swiss.
Let’s travel back to the 1700s to Couvet, Switzerland, a little town on the French border.
A Dr. Pierre Ordinaire claims fame for bringing a green alcoholic drink that we know now as absinthe into use as a medical cure all.
Absinthe is a greenish colored liquor made from several different types of herbs including fennel, green anise, and wormwood. Absinthe went from tonique to aperitif in the late 18th century and travelled over the border to France, making quite the splash in Paris by the early 1800s.
Under the reign of Napoleon III absinthe became the drink of choice and because of its high alcohol content, which is about two to three times that of a normal brandy or whiskey, it was customary to not have more than one absinthe drink.
The Parisians therefore started arranging their days around this one coveted strong drink, and henceforth this time became known as l’heure verte, the “green hour”.
One to two hours between five and seven o’clock was the only respectable time to drink the liquor, ordering a second was a definite faux-pas, and the customary drinking time seemed to stick.
Just as absinthe and French cooking made their way to the states, so did the green hour, although the name obviously did not stick.
Happy hour origins in America
Happy hour these days is clearly linked to getting slightly intoxicated without making too big a dent in your wallet, but the happy hour origins from American Naval slang in the 1920s following the First World War. A “Happy Hour” was an allotted period of time on a ship where sailors engaged in various forms of entertainment to relieve the monotonies of the seafaring life. Most of the time, this meant wrestling or boxing matches, but it still could include other athletic activities intending to boost morale.
At the same time, the U.S. was going through the darkest—not to mention driest—period in the history of getting hammered:
Prohibition, the failed experiment given legal standing by the infamous Volstead Act. From 1920 to 1933, the manufacture, transport, and sale of certain intoxicating beverages was prohibited.
But instead of abiding by the new law, Americans became as alcoholic as ever, and would gather together in secret speakeasies or at home to consume some tantalizingly illegal cocktails to wet their whistle before dinner.
“Happy Hour” as an expression was soon picked up, either directly or secondhand, from the Naval slang and merged to describe these outlawed gatherings.
Though Prohibition was later repealed, the concept stuck around. Some think that a Saturday Evening Post article from 1959 that mentioned the happy hour in regards to military life introduced the expression to the public, but other sources, like the OED, cite later examples—such as a 1961 Providence Journal article referencing Newport policemen “deprived of their happy hour at the cocktail bar”—as informally spreading it into the general vernacular over time.
Eventually, in the ’70s and ’80s, it was co-opted by the service industry as the food and drink specials we know today.
Now that the happy hour origins are clear, you understand why Heinz the Swiss boss of number 5 bar in Saigon, sticking to a tradition originated in his country, keeps happy hours from 3 to 7pm everyday! And why it is a French who put this article together!